Leadership skill: moderation

Coffee conversation threaded through a number of topics this morning, mostly flitting around diversity and how it is a continued challenge. I’m implying in technology fields, but really it’s everywhere. A post by Anne Halsall on Medium that has stuck with me is her post When Women Engineer. If you haven’t seen it, take a moment and give it a solid read-through. It is an excellent post that is looking at the crossover of sexism and how most companies have a very male-oriented bias on how they interpret, well, everything.

When I first read Anne’s post, one of my first thoughts was “Hey, some of what you’re seeing isn’t just male-sexism, it’s corporate-standard stupidity in dealing with different personalities”. There’s some of that in there and Anne reiterated that it wasn’t just lack of dealing with different personalities.

One of the skills critical to leadership is being an effective moderator. The reason applies to some of what Anne saw, but extends through different personalities, and as I’ve concretely learned over the past 18 months, is an excellent tool to help overcome significant cultural differences. “Overcoming” meaning communicating clearly – not forcing a change in interaction that come from different cultures.

Moderating is not just about making sure everyone obeys some basic politeness rules – I think my best metaphor right now is that it’s like working a complex sound engineering board where each of the people in the conversation are one of the inputs. Some are darned quite, some are loud – and leveling those out as best as possible is an obvious part of the effort. But there’s also the communication that may come across as garbeled. What may not be apparent as a need is being not only willing, but pro-active in asking clarifying questions or otherwise changing the flow of the conversation to get out a full understanding. The queues for this can be really darned subtle – a raised eyebrow, furrowed brows, or other more whole-body expressions of surprise – or the tone of the conversation a few minutes later.

A moderator has implicit (sometimes explicit) control of the conversation, and establishing that up front – often as simple as saying “I’ll be modering this meeting” – is important. You can’t be an effective moderator without it, and there are definitely times when it’s forgotten. You may need to wait out a particularly long winded or excessively vocal individual. I personally try not to engage in the “shout them down” tactic, but I’ll admit to having used it too. Honestly, when I’ve had to do that, I figured that I screwed up some better method – it’s just so… inelegant.

There is also a bit of a social contract that you are agreeing to when you’re moderating: that you won’t be injecting your own hidden agenda into the conversation. That is, you won’t be using the conversational control to your end “evil” ends. Hidden is the critical word here – all conversations have a purpose, so making it explicit what that purpose is up front – calling it out before any in-depth conversation has happened – is a good way of getting that into everyone’s heads. From there, it’s paying attention to the conversation flow, the individuals, and guiding it to try and achieve those ends. You may have to reiterate that purpose during the conversation – that’s OK. Plenty of good stuff is found in the eddys of the main flow – don’t stop it entirely, but have a sense of when it’s time to get back on track.

You might have read that good meetings all have agendas. I’m generally in agreement and one of the formulas that I try to use is starting off any conversation with the agenda and goals. That helps in immediately setting the stage for moderating the conversation, as in doing so, you have implicitly asserted that you’re paying attention to that purpose and goal. In the “conversation is a river flowing metaphor”, you stepped up the rudder and said you’d pilot the boat.

This applies all over the place in discussions – a scrum daily standup meeting (which is nicely formulaic, even though I tend to repeat what I’m looking for in the status update), to design brainstorming to technical topic discussions of “the best way to thread that mobius needle”.

One of the characteristics that a moderator has to have (or overcome) is to be willing to engage in what may be perceived as conflict. That is, you have to be willing to step in, contradict, and stop or redirect a conversation. Growing up, I was a pretty conflict-adverse person – so much so that I’d let people  walk over me, and walk over a conversation. I had to really work on that, be willing to step into a conversation, to signal with body language or conversational gambits that we needed to stop and/or re-route the flow of conversation. And yes, you’ll hit those times when all of those mechanisms fail – when emotion has gotten so heated that someone is just raving on – the only thing you can do is to stop the conversation entirely. It may even come across as terrifically rude, but the best thing you can do is get up and step away from the conversation. Sometimes that physically walking out of the room. Another choice is to let the individual who’s really going on just exhaust themselves, but recognize that the conversation may be best to set aside for the time being, or the problem/agenda may need to be reframed entirely.

As a side note, engineers – often male engineers – can be notoriously obtuse or just outright ignorant of body language cues in conversation. Most of the time I think it is non-malicious, but there will be people who intentionally ignore body or even verbal cues in order to continue their point or topic, or to ignore or override others trying to be involved.

A skill I have personally focused on developing (and which I recommend) is the ability to take notes while moderating a discussion. It may sound to you like “How on earth would you have TIME to take notes as well as moderate?!”. The answer: make the time. I am willing to ask for a pause in the conversation while I’m taking notes when backed up a bit, and by writing down the perspectives and summaries of what people are saying, it helps me externalize the content of what has been said. It actually makes it clearer to me, as the very process forces me to summarize and replay back what I thought I heard. I’ve found more instances of what was garbled communication by writing it down. When I heard it I thought I internalized it, but when I tried to right it down I realized that it wasn’t making sense. And then there is the side benefit of having written notes of the meeting, which I recommend saving – as not everyone will remember the conversation, and in some cases may not have been a part of it.

To reiterate, moderating is a skill that I view as critical to good leadership. If you’re leading a team, formally or informally, think about how you can apply it. Think about it, and DO it.  It’s one of the ways a leader can “get roadblocks out of the way”, and if you’re aspiring to lead teams, it’s something you’d do well to invest your time in learning.

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